Portuguese Colonies in Africa

Portuguese Colonies in Africa
Portuguese Colonies in Africa

Before the 1880s most African societies were independent of European rule. With particular reference to Africa south of the Sahara, colonial rule was confined to coastal patches and the Cape region, the latter being home to Anglo-Boer political rivalry.

As regards the Portuguese, their colonial interest was restricted to their colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and the tiny area of Portuguese Guinea. Interestingly, Portuguese rule in these areas was not strong. The reason was that trade, not political administration, dominated the purpose of their encounter with Africans during this period.

It was because of this that no major political responsibility was taken by Portugal, unlike the other European powers, with regard to colonies in Africa, creating the unique nature of Portuguese enterprise or activities in Africa between 1750 and 1900.

The establishment of colonies and colonial rule, as well as the strategies employed by the Portuguese to keep their holdings in Africa, have an interesting history, despite their dwindling fortunes during this period, occasioned by economic, political, and strategic factors.

Portuguese Enterprise

Between 1750 and 1900 the Portuguese did not achieve much as far as their attempt to establish colonial rule in Africa was concerned. But if colonialism is taken to mean the occupation and control of one nation by another, then some of the attempts made by Portugal to establish political control over some parts of Africa can be highlighted as examples.

It is important to stress that the driving force behind Portuguese enterprise in Africa, and elsewhere in the world, was trade and economic exploitation of their colonies, and it is this more than anything that drove Portuguese desire for political control of these areas.

Indeed, Portugal, like many of the other colonial powers, had always treated its colonies like private estates of the motherland, where resources had to be repatriated for the development of the latter.

No real political administration and structure were put in place in the colonies. In the case of East Africa, the area was more or less a stopping place for the Portuguese on their way to Asia. The chief result of their rule in this region was that it contributed greatly to crippling the old Arab settlements that were once the pride of the East African coast.

Portugal viewed its East African possessions with mixed feelings. While the area did not give them the wealth they had expected, they nevertheless wanted to contain Arab influence in the area and deal directly with the indigenous Africans. It was for this that the Portuguese attacked communities in the area and established a presence in Mombasa, Sofala, Kilwa, Mozambique, and Pemba.

There were many obstacles as far as its East African project was concerned. First, many of the Portuguese settlers in East Africa died from tropical diseases. Many others were killed in the continual fighting on the coast.

Second, due in large part to disease and fighting, Portugal never had a population large enough to carry out its colonial plans in East Africa. Most of its personnel were kept busy in Brazil and their empire in the Indian Ocean.

Third, competition from the British and the Dutch East India Company helped to weaken the Portuguese hold on the eastern shores of the Indian Ocean.

Then there were numerous revolts from the Arab leaders of the region. For instance, in 1698 Sultan bin Seif, the sultan of Oman, and his son, Imam Seif bin Sultan, captured Fort Jesus, which had been the military and strategic base of Portuguese holdings in East Africa.

Indeed, in 1699 the Portuguese were driven out of Kilwa and Pemba, thus marking the end of Portuguese colonial interest in East Africa north of Mozambique. Earlier in 1622 a revolt against the Portuguese led by a former Portuguese mission pupil, Sultan Yusuf, helped to prepare the disintegration of Portuguese military strength in Mombasa.

Consequent upon these issues, Portuguese holdings in East Africa were far from a successful colonial rule. By 1750 Portuguese interests in East Africa were replaced by a new socio-political order led by the leaders of Oman.

African Interior

In the interior of Africa, the Portuguese did not achieve anything substantial as far as colonial rule was concerned. The Mwenemutapa (known to the Portuguese as Monomotapa) did not provide fertile soil for the establishment of Portuguese colonization.

The Portuguese, for their part, were more interested in what they would get instead of what they would give. Besides, the area was already experiencing decline owing to the emergence of several dynasties in the region. This situation was not helped by contact with the Portuguese.

Elsewhere, in Guinea there was Portuguese influence, but it was not enough to be described as colonial rule. By 1750 Portuguese colonies in Africa were limited to Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea, but colonial rule was more pronounced in the first two colonies. The Portuguese also held important islands in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa.

During this period Portuguese colonies, especially Angola, remained the supply base for the Brazilian slave trade. The Portuguese sought to create a highly polished elite conditioned by their culture. This aspiration did not materialize.

Indeed, the Angolan colony, which was an example of Portuguese colonial interest in Africa, was a mere shambles, in which the criminal classes of Portugal were busy milking the people for their own benefit. To this end, Angola, like Mozambique, could be described as a trading preserve from which the interior could be reached.

Web of Misery

Politically, Portuguese colonies lacked effective administration. The historian Richard Hammond has painted the picture in a sympathetic way when he argued that Portugal could not effectively control its colonies.

He was merely echoing the voice of a Portuguese official, Oliveira Martins, who wrote that Portuguese colonies were a web of misery and disgrace and that the colonies, with the exception of Angola, be leased to those “who can do what we most decidedly cannot.”

The reason why Portuguese colonies were so painted is not hard to understand. A. F. Nogueira, a Portuguese official, said, “Our colonies oblige us to incur expenses we cannot afford: For us to conserve, out of mere ostentation, mere display, mere prejudice ... colonies that serve no useful purpose and will always bring us into discredit, is the height of absurdity and barbarity besides.”

In 1895 the minister of marine and colonies, the naval officer Ferreira de Almeida, argued in favor of selling some of the colonies and using the proceeds to develop those colonies that would be retained.

It is obvious from the issues Portugal contended with in Africa that the intent was to have a large space on the map of the world, but that Portugal was never ready to administer them practically.

This notwithstanding, it is safe to say that the Portuguese implemented the policy of assimilation in governing their colonies. The aim was to make Africans in the colonies citizens of Portugal.

Those who passed through the process of assimilation were called assimilados. It is important to note that the number of assimilados ceased to grow after the unsuccessful effort of the liberal Bandeira government to make all Africans citizens of Portugal.

It is not clear whether the Portuguese were sincere in their efforts to assimilate Africans in their colonies. It appears that the policy was a mere proclamation that did not have the necessary political backing.

Indeed, the idea of equality was a farce. The government did not provide the necessary infrastructure such as schools, finances, or other social institutions upon which such equality, demanded by true assimilation, could be built.

The process of education in Portuguese territories in Africa was far from satisfactory. The aim of Portuguese education was essentially to create an African elite that would reason in the way of the Portuguese. However, the Portuguese officials were not committed to the cause of educating Africans at the expense of Portugal.

Consequently, most schools were controlled by the Catholic Church, as a reflection of the relationship between church and state. This meant that the state was dodging its responsibility to provide education for the people of its African colonies.

Historian Walter Rodney has criticized the type of education in Portuguese colonies in Africa. He believed that the schools were nothing but agencies for the spread of the Portuguese language.

He argued further that “at the end of 500 years of shouldering the white man’s burden of civilizing ‘African Natives,’ the Portuguese had not managed to train a single African doctor in Mozambique, and the life expectancy in eastern Angola was less than 30 years ... As for Guinea-Bissau, some insight into the situation there is provided by the admission of the Portuguese themselves that Guinea-Bissau was more neglected than Angola and Mozambique.”

Later in the 20th century, the Portuguese encouraged state financing of education in the colonies and ensured that a few handpicked Africans were allowed to study in Portugal. Sometimes, provisions were made for the employment of such assimilados in the colonial administration. This development notwithstanding, Portuguese colonies in Africa did a poor job in education.

Slave Trade

Another important aspect of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa is its attitude toward labor and the recruitment of it. For a long time the slave trade provided an avenue for the recruitment of labor in Portuguese territories. However, in 1836, slave trafficking was abolished in Portugal’s colonies, although it continued in practice under the name of contract labor.

Under this new practice, every year the Portuguese shipped thousands of people from Angola to coffee and cocoa plantations on the island of São Tomé as forced laborers. Mozambique also offered an avenue for migration of labor to work in mines in British-controlled Rhodesia.

Sometimes, the migrants were happier working in the mines than being forced to work at home. All the same, the Portuguese controlled the recruitment of this labor to Rhodesia, taking revenue from each worker that they allowed to leave. This was another way to generate revenue.

The historian Basil Davidson has commented that a distinguishing feature of Portuguese colonies was the presence of large systems of forced labor put in place to exploit and oppress the indigenous people. There were reasons for this development.

First, in the case of Angola, the increasing prosperity of the cocoa industry and the attendant increase in the demand for labor made forced labor a desirable alternative.

Second, toward the end of the 18th century, the supply of labor was affected by the spread of sleeping sickness in the interior. Consequently, the Portuguese had to rely on forced labor for its supply.

The colonies were subjected to a great deal of economic exploitation. From the start, Portuguese enterprises in Africa were dictated by the desire to procure slaves. Indeed, slaves constituted almost the sole export of the colonies.

This continued up to the end of the 19th century. In Angola, the Portuguese established their rule of ruthless exploitation for the purpose of procuring large numbers of slaves for the Brazilian market.

The exploitation of Angola for slaves came to be known as the era of the pombeiros. The pombeiros, half-caste Portuguese, were notorious for their activities, which consisted of stirring up local conflicts in order to capture slaves for sale at the coast. The pombeiros were the masters of the interior whom the slave dealers relied on for procurement.

Intellectual Reaction

In 1901 a decree was issued by the government in Lisbon to put a stop to recruitment of labor by violent means. In Luanda, some pamphlets were published to denounce the practice of forced labor. This was an intellectual reaction to the phenomenon of forced labor. In practical terms, it did not have any substantial effect on the practice.

There was a violent reaction to the phenomenon of forced labor, starting with the Bailundo Revolt of 1902. In 1903 fresh regulations were issued to tackle the issue of forced labor, but they achieved little or no success.

Portugal’s objection to forced labor was not born out of their concern for Africans, but such a stance was taken whenever the authority felt that certain individuals were gaining too much local power. Indeed, the official view, embodied in a law of 1899, was that forced labor was an essential part of the civilizing process, provided it was done decently and in order.

The Portuguese attitude to race was one of superiority on their part and inferiority on the part of Africans. No colonial power was entirely free from racial prejudice.

Segregation, whether pronounced or not, was often used as a means of preserving the racial purity of European settlers in Africa. In the case of the Portuguese, the authority was interested in ensuring the racial purity of Portuguese agrarian settlers in Angola.

However, the conditions in the colonies did not favor or encourage Europeans to settle in large numbers. Consequently, white populations could be maintained only by settling convicts and by miscegenation.

Because of this, racial mixing in Portuguese colonies was accepted—it was necessary to maintain the population. Portugal’s colonial history provides a particularly illuminating case of Europe’s impact on the racial and ethnic character of Africa as far as racial-demographic engineering was concerned.

No substantial infrastructure development can be ascribed to Portuguese colonial enterprise in Africa. Even though the Portuguese treated their colonies as the “private estate of the motherland,” no major policies and programs were put in place to address infrastructural development. For instance, even though Angola produced excellent cotton, none of it was actually processed in Angola.

Additionally, communication was poor. The Portuguese settlements were isolated from one another. For instance, when Lourenzo Marques was engulfed in crises in 1842 and the governor was killed in a raid organized by the indigenous people, it took the authorities in Mozambique a year to hear of the happening by way of Rio de Janeiro. But Portugal was lucky to benefit from development initiated by other countries.

In 1879 the Eastern Telegraph Company’s cable, en route to Cape Town, established “anchor points” in Mozambique and Lourenzo Marques. In 1886 the telegraph line reached Luanda en route to the Cape. This provided the first major link between Portugal and its overseas colonies.

Furthermore, in 1880 Portugal and the Transvaal concluded a revised version of their existing territorial treaty of 1869, in which they agreed to build a railroad from Lourenzo Marques to Pretoria.

British control of the Transvaal stalled the progress of the work. Portugal on its own did not make efforts to connect its colonies in Africa in a manner that would make sense with regard to Africa’s needs and development.

Lastly, bureaucracy was not effective as far as Portuguese colonial rule in Africa was concerned. There was no regular cadre of trained civilian recruits on which to draw. The effect of this was that there was an almost complete absence of the routine competence that a good administration needs. This affected the coordination of Portuguese colonial activities in Africa.


Between 1750 and 1900 the Portuguese presence in Africa was one of economic exploitation much more than actual colonial rule. In fact, the Portuguese had no major administrative systems in place in their African colonies.

Instead, the primary motive for the creation of the colonies was economic, initially the slave trade and later other lucrative commodities. The Portuguese colonies lacked basic infrastructure and lagged behind European colonies in Africa.